India is a treasure chest of indigenous handicrafts, and every embroidered shawl and sculpted jewel box has deep roots in the land it originates from. Entrenched in the history of a place, traditional artefacts aren’t just great souvenirs—they are mini periscopes into a region’s culture and geography. And sometimes, these creations alone are worthy of a trip.
The Kannadiga town of Channapatna is known for its colourful wooden toys, traditionally handcrafted from rosewood, sandalwood, even ivory. Photo: Naveen Iqbal/Getty Images
Channapatna is also called Gombe gala Ooru “toy town”—handy to know when you’re asking for directions to this little town. It’s largely nondescript, save for a narrow main road lined with stalls selling wooden toys. On display here, are rows and rows of orange, ochre, and parrot-green figurines shaped like monkeys, matryoshka dolls, caterpillars, kitchen sets, pundits, and bobbling Bharatnatyam dancers that boogie at the faintest touch. They are the pride of this Kannadiga town, only 60 km southwest of Bengaluru, and one of many products from the state to have earned the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, an international label awarded to products from a specific location.
Channapatna’s toys supposedly date back to the era of Tipu Sultan. The fierce 18th-century ruler was a great admirer of wooden crafts and invited Persian artisans to Mysore, to teach local craftsmen. Traditionally, the toys were handcrafted from rosewood, sandalwood, even ivory, and lacquered using resin and vegetable dyes. Eco-friendly paints are still used by some of the 5,000-odd local artisans that practise the craft, but with more inexpensive wood like pine and rubber.
Sadly, many others resort to the use of synthetic tints. “Look for tonal gradation,” advises Atul Johri, a contemporary designer who works closely with the artisans in Channapatna. “They indicate the toys have been made using natural shellac instead of artificial paint.”
They might be designed for children, but the allure of Channapatna’s toys is ageless. Visit the town over a weekend and you’ll see small groups (of adults) giggling over dancing puppets, wooden snails that glide gracefully along countertops, and miniature mazes involving pretty wooden damsels. Many stores have an attached workshop where curious travellers can watch artisans hand-sculpt the wood.
Getting there Channapatna is 60 km/1.5 hrs from Bengaluru on the Bangalore-Mysore Highway. It is connected to the state capital by train and bus.
Where to buy To see the artists at work, visit Kala Nagar, the artistan’s colony set up by the government of India. The cluster of home-workshops is close to the crafts facility. Craftsmen also sell their wares at stalls along Mysore Road. Select products carefully though, for some stores are known to stock mass-produced imitations.
Depending on the complexity of the design, these low wooden tables can take between a fortnight and two months to complete. Photo: Parikshit Rao
Travellers who have visited Ladakh may be familiar with chogtses, the low wooden tables that are an indispensible part of trans-Himalayan homes. In a monastery, the chogtse is used as a meditation table where monks place the scriptures from which they recite. More elaborate, painted specimens are placed in front of the altar and bear butter lamps lit for the resident deity. In homes and at restaurants in busy Leh, steaming bowls of thukpa, followed by cups of salty butter tea, are served on the chogtse. They occupy pride of place in the homes of rich Ladakhi businessmen and in the wind-lashed tents of the nomads of the remote Changthang region.
The chogtse, like Ladakh’s hand-spun yak-wool clothing, is a result of its people’s needs, characterised by their centuries-old nomadic lifestyle. They are designed as three-sided folding tables, so that they can be easily transported. N. Rigzin’s shop, considered one of the best in Leh, has numerous finely crafted pieces. They come from several craftsmen; some in Leh, others from the villages of Choglamsar and Wanla, long considered the woodcarving capital of Ladakh. Each panel in his willow-wood tables is individually crafted and then integrated into the frame using a simple dovetailing technique. Depending on the complexity of the design, a chogtse can take between a fortnight and two months to complete. The painting of deep crimsons, rich yellows, and vibrant oranges takes about three days. “Traditionally, mineral pigments were used to render the snow lions, dragons, clouds, conch shells, and lotus motifs carved on the table,” Rigzin says. “But now, the finished product is so richly detailed that customers prefer to have it simply polished. You can still see the earliest painted chogtses in the ancient gompas of Hemis and Alchi.”
—Simar Preet Kaur
Getting there Leh is the capital of Ladakh, a dry, high-altitude region in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. There are weekly flights and a daily bus that connect Leh and Delhi.
Where to buy N. Rigzin Wood Carving & Handicrafts, first floor, Chemdey Labrang, near ITBF; 94199 61510/96222 79488. Small, painted tables are priced upwards of ₹3,000, while large, intricately carved ones (usually bought in pairs) can cost up to ₹60,000.
Delicate Bidri art finds its way onto elephant-shaped souvenirs, hookahs, trinket boxes, decanters, and jewellery. Photo: IP-Black/Indiapicture
Bahmani rulers were generous patrons of the arts. Sultans from the dynasty, which ruled the Deccan between the 1300s and 1500s, were as passionate about culture as they were about military strategy. Evidence of both these loves can still be found in Bidar, a small but astounding town in a dusty part of north Karnataka. The heart of the town has the soaring Chaubara Tower, and the beautiful ruins of the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, the Arabic university for advanced learning. In its smaller lanes, artisans hammer and shine silver in their modest stores, keeping another Bahmani tradition alive: delicate Bidri art.
I see young artisans meticulously engraving black metal with silver wire. Some are shaping crescent moons; others are etching stars and flower motifs. There are elephant-shaped souvenirs, hookahs, trinket boxes, decanters, and jewellery. I wonder how many of these artefacts had a place in Bahmani chambers. As I scan the shelves, the artisan tells me about the process: an alloy of copper and zinc is treated with various chemicals and then mixed with soil collected in the vicinity of the imposing Bidar Fort. The quality of the soil is tested, he claims, by tasting it.
I am captivated by the shopkeeper’s explanation and the volume of his collection, and leave with far more than I had intended. Most precious among my purchases is a richly embellished plate that now hangs on my wall, bringing a part of Bidar’s antiquity to my contemporary home. Every now and then, when the sun catches its silverwork, it takes me back to that dusty Kannadiga town with a heady history.
Getting there Bidar is 690 km/13 hrs north of Bengaluru and is connected by bus and train to Bangalore City Junction. Hyderabad, 150km/4 hrs away, is the closest airport. Auto-rickshaws are the best way to get around.
Where to buy Bidriware can be bought from stores on Kusum Galli at Chaubara road, in the heart of the city. Small souvenirs start at ₹250. Costs depend on the size and intricacy of the work.
Azulejos are all over the sunshine state, adorning churches, hotel lobbies, and homes, especially in old neighbourhoods like Fontainhas in Panjim. Photo: Greg Elms/Getty Images
Blink and you’ll miss it. Just opposite Club Nacional on the Panjim Riviera is a tiny lane that takes you straight out of Goa’s capital and into the heart of Alfama, Portugal. The quaint pathway leads to Azulejos de Goa, a 250-year-old mansion that Orlando de Noronha painstakingly redesigned to resemble a house in Lisbon’s oldest district. “But this is with a Goan touch,” he tells me at the door. The house has the finest example of Goa’s azulejos, the distinctive coloured tiles that you see around the older parts of some Iberian countries. The first thing I see as I enter is a Mario Gallery, exhibiting tiles based on the eminent Goan cartoonist Mario de Miranda’s art.
Azulejos are all over the sunshine state, adorning churches, hotel lobbies, and homes, especially in old neighbourhoods like Fontainhas in Panjim. They were introduced by Portuguese colonisers in the 19th century, and are still a vital part of the Latin cultural landscape. In Goa, however, the art slowly died after liberation in the 1960s—until 1998, when Noronha, fresh from a scholarship to Portugal, began producing them locally with paints imported from Portugal.
Going up the rickety wooden staircase of the bungalow, I’m greeted by bright tiles in all hues and shapes, some name plaques, some more tiles marked “Mario”, and some artistic representations of a bygone era. There are tiles portraying render (the Goan toddy-tapper), poder (baker), taverna (pub), and Goa serenata, a guitarist serenading his lover on the balcão of her home.
Noronha isn’t the craft’s only champion. Velha Goa is another local azulejos institution, whose art can be seen in the renovated chapel in Pilar, 13 km south of Panjim. The interior of the church, altar included, is decorated with azulejo ceramic. The government too supports the art, with a workshop in Bicholim, some 33 km northeast of Panjim. But Noronha is Goa’s azulejo superstar. His work adorns five-star hotel lobbies, Goa’s central library, and several hundred homes.
I visit his workshop, four kilometres from Panjim, in St. Inez where I see how the azulejo takes form. The clay tile (usually 6×6 inches) is fired in the furnace, glazed, painted on, and then fired again, to fuse the paint with the tile. According to Noronha, more and more people want azulejos, especially those inscribed with their names—a nod to Goa’s past as well as present.
Getting there Panjim, Goa’s capital, is easily accessible. Pilar is 13 km/20 mins south of Panjim, while Bicholim is 33 km/1 hour away.
Where to buy Azulejos de Goa, 7/1, M.G. Road, opp Club Nacional, Panjim; 0832-2431900, 98230 86867; www.azulejosdegoa.com. Velha Goa, House No. 191, Rua de Ourem, Fontainhas, Panjim; 0832-2735294. Azulejos Tile Centre, Shed No. D2/13, Bicholim Industrial Estate, Bicholim; 0832-2360062; www.ghrssidc.org/handicrafts/handicrafts-facility/azulejos-tile-painting.
Making a Pattamadai pai is an elaborate process: the grass is first dried, then soaked in water to increase flexibility, and dyed before being woven. Photo: Lakshmi Sharath
My first Pattamadai pais were part of my wedding trousseau, a gift from my mother. Soft and flexible, the woven mats had bold streaks of red, purple, and beige, and my husband and my names were imprinted on them. They were handmade by the Muslim craftsmen of Pattamadai, a village tucked away in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu. For generations, these mats have been made-to-order for newlyweds. Intrigued, I made the trip to Tirunelveli, the town closest to the hamlet to meet the weavers.
I could see the ridges of the hills as I drove through the Western Ghats. The Thamirabarani River nourishes this land of paddy fields and dense tropical rainforests. On the banks of the river grows the tall korai grass, the blades of which are used to weave the chatais. The process is elaborate: the grass is first dried, then soaked in water to increase flexibility, and dyed before being woven. From weavers Sulaiman and his wife, I learnt that the finest mats are woven from korai that has been soaked for a long time. The more delicate the strands, the better the final product.
In Sulaiman’s little shop I saw mats fresh from the loom, waiting to be polished, alongside korai boxes, wall hangings, and shopping bags that are made to cater to local demands. The mats, he claimed, were once sought-after all over the world. “Why, we had sent mats to Russian leaders, and even to Queen Elizabeth in London,” he said. Sensing my disbelief, Sulaiman took me to his uncle’s shop, where I saw some dusty photographs. Staring at me from an old frame was a fading black-and-white picture of Queen Elizabeth felicitating his old uncle. “Our craft is world famous,” he said, beaming with pride. “It’s just in India that people do not know about us.”
Getting there Pattamadai is a town in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. It is 600 km/11 hrs from both Chennai and Bengaluru, and 150 km/3 hrs from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The closest town is Tirunelveli, which is 23 km/30 mins away. Thoothukudi (56 km/1 hour) is the closest airport, though Thiruvananthapuram is better connected.
Where to buy Pattamadai is a very small village. When you get there, simply ask for Sulaiman’s house. The mats are priced between ₹500 and ₹5,000.
In Raghurajpur, Odisha, everybody is a patachitra artist. Photo: EPhotocorp/Dinodia
“Do you know that when the deities in the Puri Jagannath temple go on a 15-day sabbatical every year, they are worshipped in the form of a patachitra?” I turn around to find a beaming artist who invites me to his house. Before I can answer Alok Sahoo, a group of men gather around me, cajoling me to see their work too. There are barely 100 homes in this culturally significant village of Raghurajpur, but each one is a studio and everybody is a patachitra artist.
“Pata” means cloth while “chitra” is a picture, says Sahoo explaining the craft of narrative scroll painting, based on Hindu mythology. The scrolls are defined by the slender outlines of the figures, elaborate detail, and a kaleidoscopic palette. Traditionally, artists have employed various surfaces like cloth, palm leaves, even coconut shells for patachitras. In Sahoo’s home, I see many complex portraits of Krishna, his favourite deity: The blue-skinned god appears with his gopikas, with Radha, playing the flute, lifting the Govardhana Giri hill. Birds flitter about the canvas, trees sway gently, flowers bloom. “We paint the scenes the way we see them,” says Sahoo.
He explains that the cotton is soaked in water, then coated with chalk and gum, later dried and polished with stone before it is painted upon, but it is the brushes they use to add colour that catch my attention. They are made from mouse hair.
My eyes drift on to a set of hardened palm leaves that have been stitched together—they depict the fierce Dasavatara, or Vishnu’s ten avatars. I open small, circular sections of the patachitra to reveal a different avatar in each. They are like little windows within the painting. Smitten, I buy the piece. As I leave Sahoo’s home, I see an artist outside lost in his canvas; close by, a small boy practises while his father monitors his strokes.
Getting there Raghurajpur is in Odisha. It is 10 km/20 mins from Puri, 50 km/1 hour from Bhubaneswar, and 485 km/12 hrs from Kolkata. Bhubaneswar has the closest airport, and is well connected to major cities. Taxis and buses ply frequently between Raghurajpur, Puri, and Bhubaneswar.
Where to buy Raghurajpur’s artists live and work in row houses. You can watch them at work and take home pieces that catch your eye. Prices can be as low as ₹300 and go up to a few thousands depending on the size of the scroll and the intricacy of the work.
The hand-painted cards used in the Chamundeshwari Chad game depict chapters from Hindu mythology, cosmic beings, and zodiac signs. Photo: Aliyeh Rizvi
A fierce goddess watches over Mysore from an old temple on Chamundi Hills. Chamundeshwari, a form of Durga worshipped around these parts, has been the guardian deity of Mysore’s maharajas for centuries. “The Chamundeshwari Chad is named for her” says Ganjifa Raghupati Bhat as he shows me a 200-year-old Mysooru ganjifa card over a mug of steaming filter coffee.
Chamundeshwari Chad is a fairly complicated card game that is played using circular cards of 16 suits, each of which has a presiding Hindu deity. The hand-painted cards depict chapters from Hindu mythology, cosmic beings, and zodiac signs in the characteristic ganjifa miniature style. For decades now Raghupati has been painting these at his studio on the outskirts of Mysore.
Popular in Persia until the 17th century, ganjafa baazi—“ganj” is Persian for treasury—was also favoured by the Mughals who brought the addictive game to India. During Akbar’s time, however, the cards were set in ivory and often inlaid with rubies, emeralds, and lapis lazuli. The emperor played with a 12-suited deck, populated by horses, snakes, forts, and djinns, which finds a mention in the Ain-e-Akbari. The stakes were high.
Today’s ganjifas are more modest. Bhat pastes “over six layers of paper to create a stiff ivory-like base,” but explains that cloth, leather, palm leaves, and sandalwood strips are also used to make the cards. The artist, whose work has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, fashions his own fine squirrel-hair brushes with which he paints the figures on the cards. Dots add texture to the surface, and when the jewel-toned cards are finally ready, they are given a natural lacquer varnish.
The Mysooru ganjifa now receives modern patronage at Kreeda Kaushalya, a biennial exposition of traditional Indian card and board games, organised by Ramsons Kala Prathistana. It is set against the glittering backdrop of Mysore’s Dussehra celebrations that pay homage to the Goddess Chamundi.
Getting there Mysore is in Karnataka, 140 km/3 hrs southwest of Bengaluru. Daily buses and trains ply between the two cities.
Where to buy Commercial ganjifa cards can be found at Ramsons Kala Prathistana, Ramsons House, opposite the Mysore Zoo; 0821-2443669; 2449121. Antique Mysooru ganjifa cards can be seen at the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery, Jagan Mohan Palace Road; 0821-2423693; Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
An often overlooked Rajasthani tradition, the kaavad, a portable shrine with detailed panels, is brought to life by storytellers. Photo: Nina Sabnani
The kaavad often gets lost in the surfeit of Rajasthan’s numerous glamorous textile and crafts traditions. Yet, the collapsible portable shrine with painted panels has many colourful tales to tell. The boxes bear images from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, caste genealogies of the jajmans who commission them, and even nod to the raconteurs that sing their patrons’ personal histories. They serve as visual records of family trees as well as repositories of a patron’s wishes.
The carpenters (suthars) who build and paint the kaavad belong to the Mewar region that includes Chittorgarh and Udaipur, while the patrons and itinerant storytellers (bhats) who bring it to life are from Marwar, which encompasses Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Bikaner.
The tiny temple is a short, kaleidoscopic tour of the country via symbols. The temple of Badrinath, for instance, is represented through mountains, while Haridwar is illustrated through a figure climbing a ladder, signifying the steps at Har Ki Pauri. According to Nina Sabnani, author of the recently released book Kaavad Tradition of Rajasthan: A Portable Pilgrimage, and a professor at Industrial Design Centre at IIT Bombay, only a couple of families now make kaavads for storytellers. The rest design them in smaller dimensions (about four inches tall) as tourist keepsakes, often introducing contemporary ideas and figures rendered in the traditional style with mineral paints. “Earlier kaavads depicted bulbs, indicating the jajman’s desire for electricity,” said Sabnani. Now it’s commonplace to see patrons portrayed on a hanson ki paalki (swan chariot) or riding in a helicopter.
Getting there Udaipur is approximately 700 km/11 hrs south of Delhi and is connected to the capital by a daily flight and train service. Bassi is 150 km/3 hrs northeast of Udaipur, and is connected by state transport buses.
Where to buy Most suthars are concentrated around Bassi village, nestled in the foothills of the Aravallis. Artisan Satyanarayan Suthar takes special orders (98293 90239). Mangilal Mistri, in Udaipur, has made kaavads depeciting Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and even microfinance and Panchatantra (98873 48508).
For nearly a century, the Jhara people of Ektaal have churned out dull-gold dhokra figurines, a four-millennia old art whose earliest and most well-known example is the iconic dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro. Photo: Anurag Mallick
There was a time when Jharas, a sub-tribe of the Gond people, used to wander the vast tracts of the Chota Nagpur Plateau (in present-day Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Chhattisgarh) exchanging their wares for food and grain. They lived under the stars, hawking anklets, necklaces, idols, combs, bowls, and betel nut boxes. Around a hundred years ago, some Jhara people settled in Ektaal, a village on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border. For nearly a century they have churned out dull-gold dhokra figurines, a four-millennia old art whose earliest and most well-known example is the iconic dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro.
The dhokra technique remains largely unchanged even today. Using the lost-wax method, a clay core is first created and covered with a layer of beeswax and resin. The wax is carved, covered with more clay, and baked until it forms a cast, which is filled with molten metal to create the final object. When it finally cools, the clay cover is cracked open to reveal the final figure and the metal icon is given a finishing polish.
The intricate handicraft is one that the artisans of Ektaal have perfected. Today, the mud homes of nearly a hundred families in the village serve as an open-air gallery. We see beeswax being pressed into strips in buckets of water and watch women wrapping the slender wax ribbons over clay moulds. They create an assortment of pieces with painstaking detail. Traditional lamps, decorative hooks, and animal curios take only a day, while more complex figurines can sometimes take months to finish. Over a dozen villagers are recipients of prestigious national awards while 35 have received state awards for the quality of their craftsmanship. They create metal lamps, delicate jewellery, and lithe-limbed statues. The craft captures mythological icons but what dominates is scenes from everyday life like the all-important Mahua tree, as well as concepts like the tree of life. Their roots are humble, but many artists from Ektaal have travelled as far as Paris, Rome, and London for fairs and exhibitions.
—Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
Getting there Ektaal is in Chhattisgarh, 18 km/30 mins from the state capital Raipur and 640 km/12 hrs from Kolkata.
Where to buy Dhokra turtles are available for ₹450, spoons at ₹150/piece, lanterns for ₹1,800 and a set of 3 tall statues for ₹8,000. Dhokra figurines can also be picked up at the Jhitku Mitki Stores in Raipur and Raigarh.
Weavers of the traditional Baluchari sari draw inspiration from the panels of Bishnupur’s famous terracotta temples. Photo: Anuradha Goyal
Bishnupur is a handicraft collector’s delight. The town, famed for its medieval terracotta temples, is home to artisans who craft intricate dhokra metal work and conch shell bangles worn by feisty Bengali brides. But Bishnupur’s real claim to fame is the traditional Baluchari sari. Woven with delicate silk, these saris have cast their spell on women since the 18th century. Their pallus narrate stories of gods and damsels waiting for their heroic princes.
Visiting the looms where the saris are created is a treat, but it means so much more after a visit to the terracotta temples: the weavers draw inspiration from the panels of the temples, recreating myths on the sari’s border. Krishna’s amorous ways and Radha’s rebuffs of the blue-skinned god are a particular favourite. Traditionally, beige tussore silk is used as a base, highlighted with motifs in bright red, deep purple, rani pink, and gold.
Watching the weavers put finishing touches on the fabric brought back memories of Krishna’s Raas Leela at Shyam Rai Temple, and of Jor Bangla, a nearby shrine shaped like two conjoined thatched huts often seen in rural Bengal. Every warp and weft of the saris immortalises the finer points of the local milieu, myths, and history.
Getting there Bishnupur is about 150 km northwest of Kolkata, West Bengal, and is well connected to the state capital by buses and trains (about 4 hrs). Kolkata is the closest airport. Cycle-rickshaws, taxis, and auto-rickshaws can be hired to get around town.
Where to buy Jharna Baluchari Centre run by Lalu & Bhulu (99321 35430/ 99337 88724). Prices range from ₹3,500 to ₹10,000.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Handmade in India”.
Lord Jagannath permeates every pore of Raghurajpur, the heritage crafts village of Odisha’s Puri district. The deity is on vibrant patachitra scrolls, on palm etchings, on betel nut paintings, and even in the songs of traditional gotipua dancers. Close to 120 families continue to practise these ancestral arts in the village, established in 2000 as a result of an initiative by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. (INTACH later developed Padmanabhpur village, known for its weavers, in the state’s Ganjam district.) Raghurajpur is predated by the singular Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Injambakkam, about 9 km from Chennai. K.C.S. Paniker, the former principal of the Madras School of Arts, founded the commune in 1966 where artists produced handicrafts like batik fabric to fund their fine art practice.
Over the last few years, many Indian states have woken up to the prospect of attracting travellers with their crafts traditions. This has resulted in large complexes where tourists can watch artisans engaged in their trade, and get an insight into the state’s culture. The complexes include Sargaalaya, located on the banks of the Moorad River, near Vadakara in Kerala; Shilpgram in Havala Village, Udaipur, Rajasthan; and Shilparamam in Hyderabad, Telangana. Dilli Haat, set in the centre of the capital, never gets old. Even if you can’t find the leather lampshade or the kantha dupatta you’d been eyeing, the steamed chicken momos and sweet fruit beer at the Nagaland stall will not disappoint.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at email@example.com.